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Nick Clegg interview in AD LIB

Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg has told new party magazine AD LIB that he will keep the Coalition Government in the centre ground.

He also talks explicitly about Liberal Democrat achievements in Government, as well as things that would have been done differently if the Liberal Democrats had not been in Government.

The interview with journalist and commentator John Kampfner is the cover story of the monthly magazine’s first issue, which is published today.

The first issue of AD LIB will be sent to all Liberal Democrat members and it is available to subscribers thereafter.

The cover image is attached. Subscription details are in the Notes to Editors below.

The full article is below:

Nick Clegg is in machine-gun mode. “Firing at will, making profits from schools, a two-tier exam system, the dogmatic use of competition in the NHS, cutting the top rate to 40p…” The Deputy Prime Minister wants to talk about the various government policies he feels he has moderated. Or to put it less diplomatically: the various Conservative initiatives he says he has stopped.

And all this, even before our train has left the station. We are on our way to Corby, to visit local apprentice schemes, chat to business leaders and to support the local Lib Dem candidate Jill Hope in the by-election.

We return to the theme later, but I first ask him what he’s proudest of. “We’ve pulled Britain back from the economic brink and we’re making the country a distinctly more liberal place”.

The Coalition’s broad approach to deficit reduction may have produced the odd fissure but its main points have not led to a schism between the Liberal Democrats and Tories. Indeed you could say it’s the bind that ties, while other areas of government produce the tensions. Yet for all the squalls, Clegg is convinced that the last few years have shown that coalitions can, and do, work.

“The coming together of two different parties in the national interest is an attractive and effective way of doing politics,” he maintains. “It has lifted the taboo against pluralist politics.”

I suggest that in terms of public opinion the jury is out on this. He seeks to correct me: it is journalists who have struggled to come to terms with the concept of coalition not the public. “It has taken far longer for the media to adapt. They breathlessly report different views on the environment, Europe, tax and welfare. That is surely a statement of the blindingly obvious. We are different. We disagree.”

This is a very different Nick Clegg from the one who joked and joshed with David Cameron in the Downing Street Rose Garden. He is battle hardened. “It’s a genuine learning process,” he says. “You challenge, you learn. It’s best when you have an open, unprejudiced mind. A lot of people would like to see more of that in politics.” So, as we pass the half way mark in the life of this parliament, what has taken him by surprise? “Europe has raised its great ungainly head. Nobody expected that.” He adds to that list the damage wrought by the banks and the crisis in the Eurozone.

Then he makes a pointed jab at the Tories: “The Liberal Democrats entered the coalition with a modernising Conservative Party. They said they had changed, that they had become compassionate and modern. What’s become obvious is that large swathes of the [Conservative] parliamentary party don’t share that agenda. We have to yank them back to the centre.

“The government can’t move from the centre ground because I won’t let it happen.”

Where does the Prime Minister stand in this spectrum? “David Cameron and George Osborne know that you win an election only from the broad centre ground.”

Clegg suggests that PM and Chancellor know “things have gone wrong when you judge yourself on your own obsessions.” Such as? “Europe”. He goes on: “I get up at DPMQs and see backbenchers who do a jolly good impression of being antagonistic to the Coalition of which they’re a part.” While some in the Lib Dems may not like the Coalition, they “don’t display the same systemic antipathy” towards it. The essential difference is that “the idea of give and take comes naturally to us” but for some Tories “the very idea of a coalition is unbearable for them”.

Then he says this, starkly: “It was the roll of the dice that we entered into a coalition with the Conservatives, and a time of economic crisis.” He would, he says, have been vilified if he had shirked the requirement to join forces with them at that point in order to “clear up the rubble”.

I put to Clegg the view among many on the Left, including inside the Liberal Democrats, is that he and other “Orange Bookers” would have felt less comfortable joining forces with Labour. “That is complete nonsense.” He addresses “the many misleading accounts” of events in May 2010. “There was no numerical possibility of a coalition with Labour. In any case the voters had deemed that [Gordon Brown] had lost and any conceivable coalition with Labour could not have seen a return of the then Prime Minister through the back door.”

What then of the possible outcomes in 2015? Clegg insists he has not dropped the party’s long-held position of “equidistance” with Labour and Conservatives. “If the British people say that the only possibility for a stable government is another combination of parties then of course we would look at that. We Lib Dems take our marching instructions from the voters.”

Having extended what seems like an olive branch to Ed Miliband, Clegg fires this warning: don’t behave like “an overbearing sibling”. The Lib Dems, he says, have been seen by his party as an “eccentric adjunct [to Labour], called upon to help them out whenever needed. It is a profoundly patronising approach. It’s as if they think we don’t have the right to make up our own minds.” He goes further: “The red-faced bile of the Labour benches is, even by the standards of Westminster, ugly to watch”.

The problems with Labour are about more than tone. He reels off a list of recent votes and decisions that suggests the party has moved to the “right of the Lib Dems”. The most egregious of these he says was the decision to back Tory rebels on forcing Cameron’s hand to seek a cut in the UK’s contribution to the European Union. This, and more, suggests a wider trend in Labour to “chauvinism” and “illiberalism”.

Having lost the vast majority of Labour post-Iraq malcontents, Clegg knows he will struggle to get many of them back, particularly those “who don’t like any party in government”. He makes this direct pitch to the others: “we have a very strong appeal to people of the centre-left as radical liberals”.

Clegg is in no mood either to cuddle up to the Conservatives. Sometimes the battles, he says, are “bare-knuckle”. He goes back to the list he provided at the start of our chat, saying that in each of these cases, and more “I said these couldn’t go ahead”. He also mentions the recent spat over Trident.

He doesn’t like the word “differentiation”, which he thinks has been devalued. This is his variant: “There must be more of an effort to lift the veil, without it becoming permanent trench warfare.” He says this is the motivation behind his weekly Letter from the Leader emails to party members.

“I can win any number of battles but because government policies have been arrived at behind closed doors, it’s hard to explain what we’ve achieved,” he says. He offers the following paradigm: “we must explain I went for X, they went for Y, we agreed on Z.”

At this point I start chuckling, and Clegg immediately acknowledges the progeny of this formulation – I had written it in several newspaper commentaries and discussed it with him in several meetings.

Perhaps Clegg is true to his word: he does listen. “Yes, yes, alright, I know, I know…” he says with a smile, before marching off with another rendezvous with voters.

Notes:

Liberal Democrat party members can subscribe for a year (12 issues) for £35. For non-members the price is £50. Subscribe here: http://www.libdems.org.uk/adlibmag.aspx

Published and promoted by Tim Gordon on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, both at LDHQ, 8-10 Great George Street, London, SW1P 3AE.20 June